It’s Time to End The Big Lie

Guest Author: Tanya Selvaratnam

tanyaAt the age of thirty-seven, after my first miscarriage, my doctor consoled me saying, “You have time.” In fall 2011, when I was forty, as I was recovering from a third miscarriage, my doctor said, “The biggest factor is going to be your age.” I wondered, How do we define time? Less than three years had passed.

With all my pregnancies, I was struck by how suddenly they progressed from feeling real, like there was definitely something growing inside me, to feeling unreal. I felt like someone had died, but no one had. I felt like I was sick, but I wasn’t. My quest to become a mother began to feel quixotic.

 As I tried to understand what I was experiencing physiologically and psychologically, I was struck not so much by the lack of information but by the conflicting and misleading stories out there. We see celebrities and people around us having children in their late thirties and forties, but we usually don’t know the struggles they went through to achieve that goal. When I opened up to my friends, I was surprised to find that almost everyone had a story to tell about miscarriage or infertility—their own or a friend’s.

Like most women, I grew up without ever really learning basic facts about the impact of delaying motherhood. I remember being told how babies were made when I was in fifth grade. I raised my hand and said, “Is there any other way?” I was taught how to avoid pregnancy and getting STDs, but no one ever told me what would happen to my fertility as I got older. I knew that fertility declined especially after the age of thirty-five, but I didn’t know how steeply. At the age of fifteen, a woman has a 40 to 50 percent chance of conceiving naturally per cycle, but after age thirty-five, she has a 15 to 20 percent chance; and by the time she’s forty-five, she has a 3 to 5 percent chance.

The phenomenon of delayed motherhood is one of the defining trends of our time, a radical shift between my generation and the generations before. In 1970, one in 100 births were to women thirty-five and over. In 2006, it was one in twelve. Meanwhile, the number of women ages forty to forty-four who remain childless, either by choice or circumstance, has doubled in a generation: in 1976, it was one in ten; by 2006, it was one in five.

The desire to have biological children has fueled a booming IVF industry, with global revenues topping $9 billion. By 2020, that number is expected to surpass $21 billion. In the United States, only fifteen states mandate some form of insurance coverage for fertility treatments. In this context, where you live and how much you make impacts whether you can pursue them, and even when one can, treatment is far from guaranteed. As much as 80 percent of IVF cycles worldwide fail.

I decided to write a book that I felt I needed and that I hoped would helpthe big lie others. I believe we need better education and we need to advocate for a better future. Recently I saw a new documentary “Sex(ed)” by Brenda Goodman about the history of sex education in America. I was shocked to discover that only 22 states mandate sex education, and of those 22, only 12 require that the information conveyed be medically accurate. That means some young people are being preached to about abstinence-only behavior and are being told that if they have sex before marriage, they will die.

The lack of adequate sex education extends to fertility knowledge. A Fertility Centers of Illinois public survey in 2012 showed that 28.1 percent didn’t know that fertility declines rapidly in women after age thirty-five. In addition, 68.4 percent of survey respondents weren’t aware that as part of a couple, both men and women are equally likely to be infertile. The results of a study by Dr. Jessica Illuzzi of Yale University School of Medicine and her team released in January 2014 in the journal Fertility & Sterility affirm this prevalent lack of awareness. As NPR reported, the majority of the 1,000 women surveyed had big gaps in knowledge, especially when it came to risk factors for infertility and birth defects; only 10 percent of respondents knew the optimal time to try to get pregnant.

Having been through my experiences, I want to make sure that other women are better prepared. I want them to have fertility facts at their fingertips and to think about their future fertility before it’s too late. I want women to know there are many ways to become a mother, and also that there are many ways to find fulfillment aside from being a mother. I want women to think carefully about why they should or shouldn’t pursue motherhood. I want them to be supported more in that pursuit by their partners, families, communities, doctors, insurance providers, and governments.

By nature, I’m an activist. I believe in turning adversity into action. I believe everything we do, no matter how small, can make a difference. Through my struggles to have a child, I learned a lot, and I am hopeful that the ideas I propose in The Big Lie will lead to a better reproductive future and better future in general for all women, and men too.

About Author:

Tanya Selvaratnam is a writer, producer, actor, and activist based in New York City. She is the author of The Big Lie: Motherhood, Feminism, and the Reality of the Biological Clock. Please visit to download a free copy of The Big Lie’s educational toolkit companion. Tanya’s writing has been published in Vogue, Bust, Paper, xoJane, Huffington Post, Pop and Politics, the Toronto Review, Art Basel Magazine, the Journal of Law and Politics, on Women’s eNews and CNN. She received her B.A. and M.A. in Chinese language and history from Harvard University. 

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